Personal Best: Diary
The writings of Ralph Richards reveal the inner dramas in Lincolnville around the turn of the century.
Twenty-first century bloggers have nothing on Ralph Richards. Born July 19, 1878, the Lincolnville native and Spanish American War veteran was for many decades the town's rural mail carrier. From 1908 until he died in 1966, Richards kept a daily journal (www.lincolnvillehistory.org), a remarkable and remarkably entertaining account of my small town's history, residents, weather, and gossip for almost sixty years.
The first eight volumes were discovered[for the rest of this story, see the January 2008 issue of Down East]on eBay by Jackie Watts, founder of the Lincolnville Historical Society. There were no other bidders, and in 2007 the Historical Society purchased the journals from an out-of-state owner for $275. Each book covers a five-year period, from 1908-1948. There's one absent volume, 1913-1917: Ralph's missing years. Thirteen more diaries cover the post-war period, from 1949 to Richards' death on December 21, 1966, but these are in the possession of owners in Auburn, Maine, who bought them at a flea market in the Lewiston-Auburn area some years ago. (The Lincolnville Historical Society hopes that someday all of Ralph's journals might find their place together in his hometown.)
The diaries begin inauspiciously on January 1, 1908, with the first of nearly twenty thousand entries; judging from the volumes in Lincolnville's Schoolhouse Museum, Ralph never missed a day. What follows is a methodical, concise, and often dryly amused record of the world Ralph circumscribed five days a week. Hired as Lincolnville's rural mail carrier in 1904 (he shared the job with two other men), Ralph's route began each dawn at Lincolnville Beach, where he lived. After hitching his horse, Tim, to the mail wagon, he began a twenty-five-mile round trip into Lincolnville Center, probably along what is now Route 173, then inland to Belmont and Searsmont, before backtracking to the beach once more.
But what starts as a somewhat terse record of weather and accounts paid to blacksmiths and Knight's Store quickly becomes a more nuanced (if sometimes poorly spelled) daily roll call of weddings,deaths, suicides, arson, accidents, and even murders - and Ralph's own lifelong love affair with Vesta McKinney. Town records show that the two were wed, but while the early diaries have a few references to Vesta, Ralph's frequent - one might say incessant - paeans of longing are for a young woman he calls "Sammy," who lived on "the other side of the mountain," up what's now Route 52.
Ralph would often stop to visit Sammy on his rounds, and sometimes she signaled him with a mirror from her upstairs window. His habit of referring to both Sammy and Vesta during his courtship of the latter lead some readers to wonder if he was two-timing the woman who would become his wife. But careful reading of the journals determine that, in fact, Sammy and Vesta were one and the same - although then, as now, courtship was not without its potholes.
February 26, 1908:
Fair and warmer. Looks like rain tonight. Romanced Sammy, I would come out tonight but it looked so stormy I had to give it up. Fraid she will be disappointed. Dance at Tim's Clark's tonight. D- his old dances.
Friday, September 16, 1910:
Butifull day fair and cool. Emry [Ralph's friend who had been badly injured by an ax] went out doors on his own legs. First time for 12 weeks. I don't know what the trouble is but I am feeling rotten. Must be on account of the big Democratic victory and I didn't get any letter from Sammy either. Paid C.A. Stevens in full $25.
Saturday, February 25, 1911:
Fair nice day not very cold. Got a nice letter from Sammy. She is not angry at me any more. Came up over the Andrews Pond and got her and she went over home with me.
Sunday, February 26, 1911:
Fair and very warm. Sammy and I went down to the Grange Hall to a rehirsal. Horace Miller rode down with us. Sammy and Prof. Brown do their parts fine. Cant say same for the others.
Tuesday, February 28, 1911:
Fair and very cold 4 below this morning. cussed cold wind been blowing all day. No letter from Sammy and I expected to get one. Damd. Finished my frame sled, now it is all ready to iron. Father has been down here today I brought him a Bag meal $1.20 and a bag Feed $1.50.
Friday, March 24, 1911:
Clear and cold, cussid weather and a cussid bum cold that I have got, dam . . . hell . . . damn. Just wish Sammy girl was with me tonight.
Ralph and Sammy finally did marry, on October 11, 1911, at the Camden Baptist Church. She was twenty-six, he thirty-three. Unsurprisingly, Ralph's lovelorn outpourings diminish after this, and the diaries themselves become a bit more cut and dry, minus the mail carrier's heartbreak and intrigue. Yet Ralph's hometown saga is continually enlivened by his eye for detail (and gossip), as well as his artistic ability. Many of his journal entries are illustrated by charming pen-and-ink drawings of native Maine animals - skunks are a favorite, as well as mink, deer, songbirds, waterfowl, and fish. Ralph was an avid hunter and fisherman who took his yearly vacation in the fall, during hunting season. One sympathizes with the accounts of days that pass unrewarded by a buck or trout or black duck, though he captures all of these in his pictures. First snowfalls are carefully recorded, along with the first robin. Whenever the horse-drawn wagon is replaced by its winter counterpart, the event is honored by an exuberant rendition of the word SLEIGH, usually with an illustration of same.
This sense of occasion prevails through Ralph's journals, relics of an age when the passing of seasons was marked by time-honored rituals.
Sunday, November 25, 1928:
Fairly warm and a pretty good day. But tonight it's snowing. Alta came over for Vesta to go up the mountain after evergreen plants. We went up the Gilkey Road and got a lot of Princess Pines and Boston Ferns.
Thursday, November 24, 1921:
Cold. Snow all day Thanksgiving Day. Did no work just filled up on chicken, potatoes, cranberry sauce, apple pie, gold cake with chocklet frosting filled with walnuts. After dinner too full to work. Storming hard tonight.
July 20, 1921:
Rain all day. Heavy thunder showers. Went down with "Herb," and worked on Parker Young's boat. A boy named Wadsworth knocked the devil out of Will Pendleton at a dance Tranquility Hall last night.
Even the homeliest occasion is recorded, accompanied by an illustration of the sartorial event -
November 1, 1927:
Put on my long underwear. [drawing of longjohns]
Years pass. Horses and wagon are replaced by a car.
Thursday, May 10, 1928:
Fair fine day. Got a new pair Cord Tires for the Ford, Put them on and had to go to Camden for a new water bushing for a front wheel. Steped on a nale and drove it up tho my right foot. [illustration of bloody foot with nail protruding from board.] Died Lllian Miller age 63 years
The Maine weather seemed as capricious then as it is now, and the locals complained about road conditions as much as they do today, perhaps with more reason. Indeed, the United States Postal Service's apocryphal claim that "Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night will keep the postman from his appointed rounds" seems not to have met a real Maine winter, not to mention mud season:
February 27, 1912:
Awfull snow storm did not make but a small part of my tour. Went with Molly [another horse] had her down in the snow half of the time. Cused day awfull traveling. Roy [another postal carrier] only got to the Ctr. but Moll Pitcher went his whole trip.
Tuesday, March 16, 1920:
Overcast and warmer. Only got out as far as Will McCobbs. Roads are impassable and every indercation tonight of worse traveling tomorrow. Alsa & Flo up tonight to rehurs but the rest of the company did not come.
Wednesday, March 19, 1919:
Fog and more rain. Roads are just cussid. Frost coming out all over and a sticky pull through mud with no easy spots. "Hell."
What's most striking about this record of a life is just how large one small town can be, if it's your hometown. The death of an elderly neighbor, a church picnic, a child born out of wedlock - all take precedence over world events and big-city disasters.
Monday, May 1, 1911:
Fair warm nice day and the ground is about settled. "Herb Thomas" left for Montana will work on 101 Ranch. "Dance," Grange hall. Sammy and I went. 40 couple fine time. Got another muskrat in my meadow trap 5 in all. City of Bangor burned last night loss about $6,000,000.
Many of the names in Ralph's journals will be familiar to any present-day resident of Lincolnville, and Ralph himself might marvel at how his life dovetailed with some of his twenty-first-century neighbors, including Diane O'Brien and Connie Parker, the two Historical Society members who have been instrumental in bringing his work to light. A year after Ralph's death in 1967 (and forty years before the discovery of his journals), Connie and her husband bought Ralph's hunting camp and lived there while building their permanent home. Diane O'Brien, Lincolnville author and the town historian, lives just a stone's-throw from the same spot. Both of them can point out where Ralph lived and worked and bought feed for his horses; both know where his wife ran a tearoom up on the Northport border. Talking to them in Lincolnville's Schoolhouse Museum, surrounded by artifacts and photographs of the town's past, makes one feel as though at any moment there might come the faint sound of sleigh bells, a knock at the door, and a cheery "good morning" from the state's most diligent diarist.
A resident of Lincolnville since 1990, Elizabeth Hand is an award-winning writer and critic whose latest novel is Generation Loss.
- By: Elizabeth Hand